From pauper to billionaire

WhatsApp and the Joy of Adar

WhatsApp and the Joy of Adar

From penniless immigrant to billionaire, Jan Koum’s fortune captures the joy of possibility.

by Sara Debbie Gutfreund

Last week Jan Koum, a Ukrainian Jew, sold WhatsApp to Facebook for 19 billion dollars. As a child, Jan attended a school in Kiev in a town so poor that the school did not even have a bathroom. The children would have to run outside and cross the parking lot in freezing weather to use the bathroom.

In 1992, Jan moved to America with his mother and grandmother to escape the dangerous, anti-Semitic environment in Kiev. The penniless immigrants spent many years subsisting on food stamps and welfare. Jan did not own a computer until he was 19-years-old. He was a poor student who barely graduated from Mountain View High School and dropped out of San Jose State University. But he used many parts of his background to create WhatsApp.

For example, the lack of advertising in WhatsApp stems from coming from a country where advertising didn’t exist. Growing up in a place where the state monitors people’s conversations made Jan passionate about privacy and explains why WhatsApp does not require any registration information. And Jan’s own challenges as a child trying to communicate with his family back in Russia led him to his current profession. The company has only about 50 employees and few people enter WhatsApp modest offices in Mountain View.

It is the joy of possibility, of the improbable becoming reality, of the downtrodden becoming royalty.

Koum’s rags to incredible riches story is perfect for the Jewish month of Adar that we are presently in. As Purimdraws closer, our joy increases. It is the joy of possibility, of the improbable becoming reality, of the downtrodden becoming royalty. Esther was a modest, unadorned woman who was least interested in becoming queen and yet, she’s the one who ends up in the palace. Mordechai was a righteous scholar far removed from politics and yet he’s the one who becomes closest to the King. The powerful, evil Haman is degraded. The endangered, frightened nation wins. Things are turned upside down and inside out.

That is the joy of this month – the happiness of possibility, of knowing that God can turn anything and everything around any day, any hour, any minute. Behind the scenes, God is pulling the strings, orchestrating events with surprising results that no one had planned.

Like the unlikely story of how I met my husband. At the time, I was pulling all-nighters in the Wharton study halls and partying every Saturday night with my friends. When one of the Hillel organizers asked me to speak at the third meal on Shabbos, I almost said no. It would take too much time to write a speech. Besides, I didn’t even like speaking. And I wasn’t even planning on going to that meal. But I spent a lot of time at Hillel, eating meals and going to prayer services there each week. I felt like I should be giving something back, even if it was just a ten minute speech. So I spoke.

Afterwards, my husband-to-be approached me and asked me about some of the ideas that I spoke about. We walked back to the dorms talking about Torah and Israel and our shared ideals. At that point in my life, I wasn’t ready to get married. My plan was to finish graduate school first. But when I walked back into my dorm room, the first thing I said to my roommate was, “I just met the person that I’m going to marry. He has a good soul just like my grandma said I should look for.”

“Have you lost your mind? You only spoke to him for five, ten minutes max!” my roommate said flabbergasted. “Remember our plan? Graduate school? The apartment we’re going to share in NYC?”

My roommate thought I was joking. And I didn’t blame her. Marriage was something very far off in my future – or so I thought. But something had changed. Something had been turned upside down and inside out. At that moment I knew that my own ‘plan’ was being transformed into something else, something that I hadn’t even been looking for.

“I’m going to marry him,” I answered.

“Let’s go to Smokey Joe’s. I think you need a drink,” my roommate laughed.

But right after our college graduation that year, this same roommate was laughing at my wedding, toasting the most improbable, impossible match that either of us could have thought of.

Recently, I took my children to the planetarium in NYC. We sat underneath the dome of billions of shooting stars and gazed at the galaxies exploding into each other.

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“I never knew there were so many stars,” my son said in wonder. And I realized that I hadn’t known there were so many stars either. Stars and galaxies and layers of reality. So many possibilities expanding and contracting and exploding into our lives.

It happens every day, and we don’t even see it. An impoverished immigrant sells Whats App for 19 billion dollars. 19 billion dollars! The megillah of our own lives suddenly swerves into a new script, with opportunities we couldn’t have imagined and depths we never even knew existed.

This is the joy of Adar. The happiness of possibility that drenches each day with newborn hope. The laughter in the wake of the unexpected match, the improbable deal, the impossible victor. The joy of the billions of stars above us and within us, waiting to light up our lives.

Published: February 22, 2014

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